In Fire Season: Field Notes from a Wilderness Lookout, Philip Connors welcomes us into his unconventional “office”: a seven-by-seven-foot “glass-walled perch” 55 feet above the ground in the mountains of New Mexico’s Gila National Forest. Connors occupies this cramped aerie from April through August, scanning the pine-clad mountains on every side for “a wisp of white like a feather, a single snag puffing a little finger of smoke into the air.” Such “smokes,” as the U.S. Forest Service dubs them, are the first signs that a lightning strike — or a careless camper — has kindled another wildfire.
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In 2002 Connors (then just 29) resigned his post as a copy editor at The Wall Street Journal — a job that had left him “atrophied after four years in the city” — and became essentially a migrant worker (he makes his living in the seven-month off-season by tending bar in Silver City, New Mexico). Atop 10,010-foot-high Apache Peak, in stark contrast, he earns his keep by using his two-way radio — his main link to humanity — to call in wildfire sightings. Five to 15 times a year, Connors estimates, he is the first fire lookout to see, and report, a smoke.
The resulting mobilization of fire crews — sometimes by air, often by vehicle, occasionally by both — provides insights into the modern science of fighting wildfires. During the first week in August, Connors routinely awakens each morning to discover “a world bathed in smoke” as more than half a dozen fires smolder in the distance.
Freed from the bustle of civilization, Connors initially regarded life in the tower as one of tedium. But with the surroundings inclining him to take the long view, he quickly cultivated a reverence for a place and a lifestyle that few of us will ever get to experience: “Once you struggle through that swamp of monotony where time bogs down in excruciating ticks from your wristwatch,” he writes, “it becomes possible to break through to a state of equilibrium, to reach a kind of waiting and watching that verges on the holy.”
The result of Connors’s “waiting and watching” — and writing, of course — is an engaging and highly readable mix of wilderness reflection, ode to solitude, and reasoned assault on forestry techniques: specifically, the U.S. Forest Service’s long-standing policy to snuff out every wildfire, no matter how small.
The watchtower manned by Connors is one of only three in the Gila wilderness that cannot be reached by a Forest Service road. His fortnightly commute (10 days on duty, four days off) lasts hours: First, a 15-mile Jeep ride from the hamlet of Embree to Wright’s Saddle, where the road ends. Next, Connors shoulders a hefty backpack containing “immediate necessities” — food, binoculars, a handheld radio, his typewriter, some whiskey — and tramps five miles up mountainside trails to reach his post. A mule train delivers the supplies he can’t carry.